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Why performance reviews are not the place for career conversations

You may believe that your organisation effectively addresses career conversations. After all, you ask about careers as part of the performance review. You have a question that asks employees, ‘What are your career goals?’ This is a common way for organisations to address career conversations if they recognise their importance, but this approach doesn’t work.

As an HR professional, you may believe that your organisation is effectively addressing career conversations. After all, you ask about careers as part of the performance review. You have a question that asks employees, ‘What are your career goals?’ This is a common way for organisations to address career conversations if they recognise their importance, but I’m sorry to tell you that this approach doesn’t work.

If you have them to hand, look at some completed performance reviews. In how many of them is that question answered? One HR business partner told me that in her case, the question was left blank in at least 80% of cases. In the other 20% of cases, the box was ticked or had a generic statement like ‘To be promoted’.

Why don’t employees answer the question? Research for the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills confirms what we know instinctively. Career choices and decisions are complex. They’re influenced by many factors – both internal and external. A question such as, ‘What are your career goals?’ is simple to ask, but not at all simple for most people to answer (unless they have done a lot of thinking about it beforehand).

Even if they can answer the question, the last few minutes of a performance review is almost the worst place to tackle such a complex subject.

In our fast-paced world of work today, it’s important to have conversations about both performance and career growth but we need to pay attention to when and in what context we hold each discussion.

Performance reviews focus on an employee’s past performance over a period of time. The emphasis is on accomplishments relative to specific standards set by the organisation. They are like looking in the rear-view mirror. They’re about evaluating an employee’s work during a specific timeframe against the goals we set out for them. They’re a tool to measure how far someone has come – their achievements, strengths, areas they need to work on, and how they’ve contributed to the company as a whole.

In a performance review, we’re measuring how well an employee is doing in their current role, and based on that, we make decisions. No matter how well the conversation is managed there’s a risk these discussions can take a negative turn. And because these reviews directly influence decisions about promotions, salary raises, or sometimes even job security, they’re closely tied to immediate rewards or consequences.

Career conversations, on the other hand, focus on the future. They are like a road map, laying out the journey ahead. They are about an employee’s career goals, where they want to grow, and how they want to develop, both within their current roles and potentially beyond. Unlike performance reviews, they’re not about instant rewards or fallout. They’re strategic, focused on the future – what roles an employee might take on, which skills they need to enhance, and how their aspirations line up with the organisation’s long-term business objectives.

When we try to combine performance reviews and career conversations, we often find the former steals the limelight. The weight of immediate consequences from performance reviews can stress employees, restricting the open, candid talks we need for valuable career conversations. Employees might start to play it safe, holding back from genuine discussions about their career growth.

That is why managers and employees need to be having career conversations separate to the performance reviews.

There are enormous benefits that employees can gain from having dedicated career conversations. Those include:

  • Helping them feel more satisfied and motivated in their current role, no matter what their ambitions.
  • Encouraging them to identify development opportunities and take steps that will help them to be more effective.
  • Having conversations that make them want to stay with the organisation rather than go elsewhere.
  • Having a flexible approach, which means they take ownership of their career development.
  • Supporting their wellbeing by taking a holistic approach to growth and development.

There are also enormous benefits that managers and the organisation can gain, and they largely relate to building agile, adaptable and future-proof organisations:

  • Alignment between the ambitions of the organisation and the ambitions of the individual. In today’s disruptive marketplace, leaders must develop their employees to grasp market opportunities. Career conversations allow organisations to adjust roles in a way that will take advantage of people’s strengths. They also allow adjustments that respond to people’s interests and aspirations to create a more agile response to organisation development. It allows employees to identify and explore the alignment between their goals and those of their organisation. In turn, this increases commitment, loyalty and the pool of internal talent available to the organisation.
  • Resourcing new projects, roles and responsibilities. In times of change and growth, effective resourcing and redeployment of skills is more important than ever. Career conversations raise an employee’s awareness of their interests, strengths, values and aspirations. That can help decisions around promotions. It can also inform resourcing decisions related to secondments, project work and lateral moves. Career conversations help move people into roles where their skills are most suited and their aspirations are best met.
  • Growing future leaders and specialists. Career conversations help employees develop skills the business requires now and in the future. Most highly skilled jobs need skills that are specific to the organisation or are hard to recruit. Effective career conversations will also allow employees to be better prepared for new roles. That means the transition into a new role will be smoother and more successful. Career conversations can also help employees understand how their role might change with time. They can then identify and develop skills in readiness for these changes. In this way, career conversations can be a powerful tool for building agile, adaptable and future-proof organisations.
  • Attracting and retaining talented employees. Career conversations help companies attract and keep high-performing employees. Ambitious employees look for career coaching and development support. That makes regular career conversations an attractive component of any employee experience strategy. Employees are more likely to remain with their current employer when offered the opportunity to develop. When career conversations don’t happen, employees are more likely to leave an organisation. In a global market where skilled workers are in short supply, these practices become even more important.
  • Increased organisation performance. Get career conversations right and individuals will feel connected to their work. They will feel valued for their contribution and engaged with the organisation, so they will be more motivated to contribute. Their willingness to apply and increase their capability will be enhanced. If each employee performs better and is assisted to reach their full potential, the organisation is more likely to reach its goals.

In summary, career conversations can help build an organisation’s capability to meet future demands. They help keep existing staff, as well as attract high-quality applicants. This unlocks a value chain. By having a career conversation, a manager can improve employee performance, drive organisation performance, increase business results and, ultimately, serve their community better.

By recognising the complexity of career decisions and providing dedicated time and resources for career conversations, organisations can better support their employees’ professional growth and fulfilment. Embrace the importance of separate career conversations, and your organisation will reap the benefits of a more engaged and motivated workforce.

Antoinette Oglethorpe is author of Confident Career Conversations: Empower Your Employees for Career Growth and Retention published by Rethink Press.

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